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Carving a Legacy: The Evolution of Ski Racing at Western Colorado University 

Black and white photo of Western's Nordic ski team in 1953.

By Kevin Geisen

Throughout the years, skiing at Western Colorado University has undergone significant transformations. It all began with the establishment of the ski team in the winter of 1946- 1947, followed by the formation of the inaugural NCAA ski team in 1949-1950. Fast forward to the present day, and Western’s ski teams are now thriving under the Mountain Sports program, upholding a longstanding tradition of skiing excellence. As we delve into the history of skiing at Western, we’ll uncover the parallels between past and present programming, underscoring the enduring commitment to excellence. Let us continue to honor the past, revel in the achievements of the present, and set a course for the future of skiing at Western. 

Forging a Legacy 

Nestled amidst towering mountains and enveloped by crisp mountain air, the Gunnison Valley has long served as a haven for skiing enthusiasts. Following World War II, the inaugural ski team emerged under the stewardship of two distinguished veterans of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division: Crosby Perry-Smith and Dick Wellington. In 1949, the arrival of the iconic coach Sven Wiik from Sweden marked a transformative moment for Western’s ski program. That year, Wiik collaborated with Athletic Director Paul Wright to get skiing adopted as an official NCAA-sanctioned sport. Under Wiik’s mentorship over the next 19 years, Western witnessed the emergence of multiple NCAA champions and the development of over a dozen Olympians.

Black and white photo of an athlete competing in a Nordic ski race in Crested Butte.

Over the course of its history, Western has celebrated nine NCAA individual championships in skiing. The streak began in 1957 when Mack Miller secured the victory in the men’s cross-country event. In subsequent years, the tradition continued, with notable triumphs such as Dave Gorsuch’s 1963 win in the men’s downhill and Eddy Demers’ back-to-back victories in the men’s cross-country competition in 1963 and 1964. The versatility of Western athletes was highlighted in the four-way combined competition, with Jennings Cress and Loris Werner clinching titles in 1964, 1965, and 1966. The tradition persisted into the late ‘90s, with Amy Crawford and Gina Legueri securing the top two spots in the 15km freestyle event at the 1997 NCAA Championships. More recently, in 2007, Sarah Schaedler claimed victory in the women’s alpine giant slalom, further cementing Western’s legacy of excellence on the slopes.  

Rocky Road 

In 2005, the ski team at Western faced a harsh reality as budget cuts hit hard amid statewide cuts to higher education funding. Despite efforts to secure financial backing, the team fell short, leading to its official disbandment after the 2008 season. This news was not only devastating but sadly reflective of a wider trend in collegiate skiing, where dwindling support has become all too familiar over the past twenty-five years. 

At the turn of the 21st century, there were 45 NCAA schools with skiing programs. Today, that number has dwindled to just 28, a stark reminder of the challenges facing the sport.

Among those remaining, only twenty programs have alpine ski teams, and twenty-two offer Nordic programs. The University of New Mexico’s decision in 2017 to cut its ski team due to state budget constraints most recently underscored the precarious nature of collegiate skiing. Despite two years of valiant effort through private funding, the New Mexico team ultimately folded in 2019. Following the termination of NCAA skiing at Western, the road ahead was fraught with challenges. While some athletes persisted in competing within the USCSA circuit, the absence of institutional support posed a formidable barrier.  

The Western women's Nordic ski team poses for a photo after winning the 1990 national championship

New Beginnings 

With a foundation of strong leadership, an ambitious vision, and a commitment to excellence, Western’s Mountain Sports program emerged in 2012. Over the next decade, Mountain Sports would expand to include teams in seven disciplines: Nordic skiing, alpine skiing, freeride skiing and snowboarding, ski mountaineering, trail running, mountain biking, and climbing. Under this innovative framework, the Nordic and Alpine ski teams found a new home, presenting fresh opportunities.

In 2015, Mountain Sports reinvigorated its focus on Nordic and Alpine skiing, heralding the dawn of a new era for skiing at Western. With dedicated coaching, a robust competition schedule, top-tier training facilities, and access to world-class skiing in the Gunnison Valley, skiing at Western experienced a resurgence. The Alpine and Nordic teams now compete in the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United States Collegiate Ski Association (USCSA), providing them with the chance to measure their skills against teams from across the nation.

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A Day in the Life 

During a typical week, athletes commence their training bright and early with 6 am weight training sessions twice a week, followed by 8 am classes. After their academic commitments, they head up to Crested Butte for a second round of training. During training sessions, athletes might find themselves honing their skills in various ways. For the Alpine team, this could mean meticulously navigating gates at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, while their counterparts on the Nordic team might be engaged in challenging intervals at the Crested Butte Nordic Center. Each discipline demands precision, endurance, and unwavering focus as these athletes strive for excellence on the snow. 

During the off-season, athletes remain active by participating in activities such as trail running, mountain biking, or engaging in dryland training programs orchestrated by the ski teams. With a solid foundation built during this period, the teams commence their winter season with an intensive Thanksgiving camp, followed by early races in December. Once January arrives, the schedule becomes packed with competitions. In 2024, the Nordic team attended events like US Senior Nationals and the University of Utah Invite in Soldier Hollow, UT, the University of Wyoming Invite in Laramie, WY, and USCSA Nationals in Lake Placid, NY. Similarly, the alpine team traverses the country for races held in destinations such as Keystone, CO, Winter Park, CO, and Red Lodge, MT. 

A Western Nordic skier competes at the national meet.

Continuing Traditions: Bridging Past and Present 

Since the reintroduction of Western’s ski teams, Mountain Sports has produced numerous All-Americans in both the alpine and Nordic disciplines. Over the last six years, the Nordic ski team has secured two USCSA national titles and achieved multiple team national podium finishes for both men and women. Meanwhile, the alpine squad has celebrated the achievement of an individual conference champion and numerous strong appearances at nationals. This recent triumph echoes Western’s earlier dominance in the USCSA circuit, which was then known as the National Collegiate Ski Association (NCSA) before its rebranding in 1992. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Western was an active participant in the NCSA, a legacy commemorated by multiple championship trophies displayed in the Paul Wright Gymnasium. 

Today, many former NCAA schools are well-represented within the USCSA league, some of which maintain varsity-level programs. Notable institutions in this league include the University of Wyoming, College of Idaho, Colorado State University, Castleton University, and the University of Maine Presque Isle. Looking ahead, Western’s ski teams are aiming for the prestigious Presidents Award, bestowed upon the team achieving the highest combined scores in Nordic and alpine events at USCSA nationals. 

Beyond upholding the legacy of Nordic and alpine ski racing, Mountain Sports encompasses formidable freeride ski and snowboard teams, as well as a competitive ski mountaineering squad. Over the past decade, numerous athletes have qualified for the Freeride World Tour, while the ski mountaineering team boasts multiple members named to the USA Skimo Team. With skimo set to debut in the 2026 Olympics, current athletes and alums alike have their sights set on representing their country on the grandest stage. 

The men's Western Nordic ski team poses for a photo at the national meet.

Joining Together for Success 

As we look ahead, let’s come together to support skiing at Western Colorado University. Through financial contributions, mentorship, and advocacy, alumni and supporters shape the future of the ski teams. Together, we honor Sven Wiik’s legacy, celebrate historical and modern achievements, and inspire future Mountaineers to excel on the slopes. With dedication, perseverance, and a collective commitment to greatness, the program will continue to carve its legacy on the slopes for generations to come.  Kevin Geisen is originally from northern Wisconsin and has been skiing since childhood. A 2018 graduate of Western, he now directs Mountain Sports and coaches the Nordic ski team. As a student-athlete, he represented Western at the World University Games in Kazakhstan (2017) and Russia (2019). Kevin’s achievements include winning USCSA Nationals as both an athlete in 2018 and as a coach in 2023.

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